samedi 21 février 2009

Myth vs Reality

Don’t you ever get the feeling while reading a book that somehow you come to know the author too? Or at least you get an idea of what the person must be like. Half the time these ideas remain just that, ideas with no means of verifying it. But sometimes an opportunity comes along and its funny to compare reality to the myth you’ve somehow built up in your head. Recently my opportunity came along when I attended a joint reading by Mavis Gallant and Jhumpa Lahiri.
I’d always heard a lot about Mavis Gallant but never had the chance to read her fiction. And after the reading, I’ve decided that its time to remedy this situation. I don’t presume to know Ms. Gallant but during the question and answer portion she was funny and pithy and had the audience in stitches. Despite her great age, she has such a presence that you really do hear her stories come alive. And the little I’ve heard are funny and knowing and wise. I’m really looking forward to starting her Varieties of Exile.

I really think Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies must be one of the most well written collection of short stories I’ve ever read. I think I’ve said it before that I’m not such a fan of short stories because I like long involved stories, but Lahiri’s short fiction is really good. Interpreter of Maladies was an impressive debut collection; so impressive, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Her stories are always so contained and precise yet filled with such rich detail. That’s a rare feat to achieve because the short story form doesn’t really allow the writer much wiggle room for setting up the narrative and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. Many writers take their time to set up (Henry James comes to mind) and a lot don’t bother with the structure and instead come up with a series of narrative events that are somehow strung along to make a novel. Somehow Lahiri transcends the limitations of the short story form and makes it her own. She tackles such difficult subjects too, like loneliness and alienation in different situations and places. A recurrent theme she explores is the immigrant experience and she details such experiences exquisitely. I can't forget her story “The Third and Final Continent”. I finished it and started reading it over again. Excellent as her stories are however, I always felt that there was a sort of coldness, a distance as it were between her stories and me. Yes, I could identify with certain themes but it wasn’t the sort of story I could call my own. I didn’t think much of this and it certainly didn’t stop me from continuing to read her work. And I was really looking forward to her reading.
Up close and personal, I can confirm that she’s beautiful with this sort of regally cool presence. Even her manner of answering the questions posed was coolly poised. She was sort of icy compared to Mavis’ down to earthiness. Being the eager beaver that I am when it comes to authors I like, I queued to have her sign my books. When my turn came, I asked if I could take her photo. I was a bit crushed when she replied (rather coldly), “I don’t really pose for photos.” I had a Eureka moment right there; that’s probably why her prose is always a little cold. Hmm, I guess that should teach me not to build a myth in my head about people who I only “know” in writing. But I also do think that one’s self really does show through one’s writing. Which thought in turn leads me to remember that one piece of advice I’ve always been told, “never put it down in writing."

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